Charlotte, North Carolina, Sept. 5: Two and a half hours before America’s First Lady took the floor of the Democratic National Convention here to deliver a motivational address crafted to propel her husband into a new term in the White House, an e-mail landed in my Inbox.
The sender’s name was Michelle Obama.
I was at a party at “Five Church,” an iconic downtown Charlotte restaurant whose owner told me that the eatery’s ceiling is unconventional because the whole text of The Art of War in Chinese has been hand-painted on every inch of its available space.
A special attraction at Five Church is a cocktail that goes by the restaurant’s name. It is made of muddled lychees, lychee juice, vanilla-infused vodka and ginger ale. It was tempting to stay on at Five Church but the e-mail I had just received tore me away, back to the Time Warner Cable Arena where Michelle Obama was to speak.
“Krishnan,” her e-mail, which would have been written by a Democratic party staffer — but approved by the First Lady, I was assured Ė began. “Tonight I will take the stage in Charlotte to talk about why my husband — and our President — is the right man for the job.
“Twenty-three years ago, I fell in love with Barack because of his passion, sense of purpose, and his determination to make life better for other people. It is just who he is — and it is who he continues to be every day in the White House. And for these next two months, we have got to give it everything we have got so that we have the chance to finish what we started.
“Already this week, folks have chipped in more than 120,000 grassroots donations to help build this organisation. That is just incredible. So let us see how many people we can get to chip in by the end of this convention. If you think Barack is the right man for the job, please show your support with a donation of $10 or more todayÖ.”
It was signed off with “Thanks, — Michelle”.
I could not, of course, have donated anything even if I wanted to.
Foreigners are prohibited by law from making contributions to US elections.
Shortly after midnight, by the time I was driving back to my hotel after listening to the First Lady’s speech which had hundreds of men and women, especially women, in and around the Time Warner Cable Arena alternately in tears and in goosebumps, another e-mail in her name arrived in my Inbox.
This one had the subject line: “Krishnan, Thank you.”
It read: “Krishnan, I know your life is full Ė with work, or school, or family Ė and yet you still find the time to help out when you can. You may have a tight budget, but you give what you can afford.
“A woman recently told the campaign her family skipped a pizza dinner at their favourite place so that they could make a difference in this election. That is the commitment that drives this campaign. If you can support Barack with a donation today, please know it makes a huge difference. If we win, it will be because of what you did at moments like this.”
There was a postscript. “It meant a lot to me to speak with you and everyone else last night. Thank you for everything you do.”
The message was signed off exactly like the earlier one. Both e-mails had a link to make a donation to the Obama campaign.
A young receptionist at my hotel in Concord, some distance from downtown Charlotte, has the same name as the Clinton offspring: Chelsea. It is unlikely that she was named after the only daughter of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Chelsea, the receptionist, is white in a part of the US where white people tend to be Republican-leaning what with the American South’s legacy of racial segregation.
Chelsea told me while I was having breakfast this morning that she hastened back home from her shift at the hotel at 10pm to listen to Michelle Obama. There was that soft look of empathy in Chelsea’s eyes when she paraphrased the First Lady’s words that mattered most to her and others of her age.
“Believe it or not,” Michelle Obama told the convention -- and millions of America’s prime time television audience -- last night, “when we were first married, our combined monthly student loan bills were actually higher than our mortgage. We were so young, so in love, and so in debt. That is why Barack has fought so hard to increase student aid and keep interest rates down, because he wants every young person to fulfil their promise and be able to attend college without a mountain of debt.”
Chelsea attends a community college here and she knows exactly what Michelle Obama is talking about. I did not ask the receptionist who she will vote for in November, but clearly the First Lady’s speech had impacted her. They were communicating what each other could understand and relate to.
A Democrat has seldom won Chelsea’s state of North Carolina since 1968. Obama was a rare exception four years ago. But even with a wave in his favour the Democrat defeated Republican John McCain by a slender margin of less than 14,000 votes with over four million ballots cast in the state.
If Obama repeats his winning streak here in two months, it will be largely Ė so far Ė because of how his wife connected with Carolinians last night. On an expanded canvas that can also be said about a larger national audience in America.
Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Obama’s hometown of Chicago, who served previously as the President’s Chief of Staff, told the convention shortly before the First Lady took the floor that “Every night, President Obama reads 10 letters from everyday Americans. When I met with the President at the end of each day, he made sure he had their letters to read at his residence Ė letters from people just hoping for someone in power to understand their struggles and challenges.
“I cannot tell you how many times Ė whether we were discussing the economy, health care, or energy prices Ė the President would walk to his desk, take out one of their letters, read it to all of us, and say, ‘This is who we are fighting for’ Ė parents working hard to save for their child’s education, middle-class Americans fighting tooth-and-nail to hold onto their jobs, their homes and life savings. It is their voices that President Obama brings to the Oval Office. It is their values I saw him fight for every day.”
Michelle Obama then amplified on that theme in a way only a wife can talk about a husband when they are in a close marriage. “I see the concern in his eyes and I hear the determination in his voice as he tells me, ‘You won’t believe what these folks are going through, Michelle. It is not right. We have got to keep working to fix this. We have got so much more to do.’”
Later this morning, as I was waiting in my hotel lobby for a shuttle bus to take me to the Maryland Democrats’ delegation, a woman who was clearly well past her menopause began a conversation with me.
Michelle Obama appeared up close and personal with her as she watched the First Lady on television last night, talking about how the President felt about women’s rights on abortion and other issues that affect women. “And he believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care. That is what my husband stands for.”
The woman told me. “I wish we had a First Lady like this when I was young.” She did not elaborate. She did not need to.
Incendiary remarks by a Republican Senate candidate in Missouri about “legitimate” rape and stands by Republican Governors like Bobby Jindal about pregnancies from rape and incest have made women insecure about the election outcome in November.
They are looking up to Michelle Obama for leadership. She provided an abundance of it last night.